Monday, February 8, 2016

road sweet road

This was a rotten weekend to be a Panther.  The Super Bowl did not go their way, the NHL's Florida Panthers lost on Saturday, and so, believe it or not, did most D-I basketball teams of that nickname.

In the case of the Pittsburgh variety, it was cruelly done.  Malcolm Brogdon returned to the building where two years ago he shanked the hopes and dreams of a raucous crowd with a buzzer-beating three, and this time gave them no reason to stay excited for that long.  Brogdon put 21 points on the board and extended his team's winning streak to six.

This is what a top-ten team is supposed to do, repeatedly.  I also did say, a little while ago, that the ACC is supposed to be this minefield of obstacles, and those two statements don't seem to jibe at first glance.  But you're not one of the top teams in the conference if you keep stepping on the mines.  And if and when you do rise to the top, as UVA has been doing the last couple weeks, you become that top-ten team.  I recall, in the days B.T. (Before Tony), even when UVA had a good team, the elite teams (mainly the Tobacco Road ones) would still come in, generate a lot of buzz around Grounds, and then generally bomb us back to the stone age.

Life on the other side of those trenches is pretty good.  For two successive weekends now, an opponent of perfectly good standing in the conference has welcomed UVA to their gym, packed the house and legitimately fired up the crowd, and then skulked out with welts on their backside.  UVA hadn't held an ACC opponent under a point-per-possession all year, until they did so at Louisville, and now rides a three-game streak of doing so.  That's twice, in case you lost count, in someone else's full and very loud gymnasium.  Should they shut up three road crowds in a row, it would be the most satisfying road win of all time.

Actually, this is just the right week to really get the chemistry perfected.  VT visits on Tuesday and then the Hoos are in Durham on Saturday.  Getting it right against Clemson is fine, but not every win is created equal.  A couple months ago I prematurely declared the chemistry experiment finished, and UVA ready to open up with both guns.  They were not.  This time around, with the defense much more locked in, they just might be.

***********************************************

-- One reason I have legitimate hope for the chemistry this time around is the play of the bench in the second half.  During a roughly five minute run with all of UVA's stars on the bench (Brogdon, Gill, Perrantes) UVA stretched the lead against most of Pitt's starters.  I was even leery of seeing them subbed back out - sometimes you just roll with what's working - but the starters came back in nice and fresh and picked up right where the subs left off.

-- I don't think I've ever seen UVA be the beneficiary of such a clearly bullshit call as the offensive goaltending the refs (with Jamie Luckie in charge, natch) slapped on Pitt.  Not only was the ball four inches off the rim, it was part way below it.

-- The Louisville game was even worse in the refs department.  The crowd was clearly pissed, and they mostly had a right to be, except that they were getting their fair share of nonsense calls too.

-- I still can't decide whether Ike Wilkins should develop his big-man game or small-man game.  Is he a really big frontcourt player who can post up and guard down low, or is he a smallish stretch power forward?  Where he plays on defense strongly suggests the latter - but then, look at all the jump shots he makes, or that pass to Gill for the dunk on a fast break.  Evan Nolte has at times been used on both sides of that equation, and Wilkins probably will over the next couple years, too.

-- I'm not very wild about the three-game football series with ODU that UVA just announced.  You can put me in the camp that says we have very little to gain and a great deal to lose.  Lose just one of those games and you hand ODU a great reason to keep all those Tidewater players right where they are.  It's not like we should need to play a game in Norfolk to establish a recruiting presence there.  That series doesn't start til Bronco's third season, though, so hopefully the team has a culture change well on the way by then.  And if I still lived five minutes from the ODU campus, which I did, ten years ago, I'd be all about the idea.  As I'm sure 757 Hoos are right now.  It's not all bad, but I think there are better scheduling ideas out there.

Monday, January 25, 2016

it's supposed to be this way

Yeah, I know, I get it: losing at basketball to VT is crap, and will always be crap regardless of any extenuating circumstance at all.  Also, there were higher expectations for this season than to start it off 2-3 in the ACC with losses in what should've been the easier road games on the slate.  Also also, despite the Tony = Defense label they've earned over the past few years, this team has yet to hold an ACC opponent under 1 point per possession.

I could go on.  Rocky start to January, is the point.  I mean, we're a bit spoiled here.  4-3 in the ACC is not the worst thing that can happen to your basketball team.  Dave Leitao won four ACC games in all of 2009.  Last year UVA won as many ACC games as Leitao won in '06, '08, and '09 combined, so falling short of that standard is something you should kinda expect every so often.

Still, by the standards set the past two years, it's a rocky start, and there are more than a few reasons for it.  And yet I can't help but enjoy it.  Why?  Cause this is the ACC's rightful way of life.

Dean Smith (I think) is credited with saying that every road win in the ACC is an upset.  He wasn't aw-shucksing his team.  He was talking about the ACC as he knew it - and how it should be.  Certain teams in the ACC's history have had less trouble than others in winning on the road, of course, and Smith coached one of them.  But the NFL and its "any given Sunday" mantra have had nothing on ACC basketball.

At least for the longest time.  The early part of this decade was rough on the conference and its reputation for being a powerhouse and an impossible gauntlet of competition.  In 1998, Florida State went 6-10 in the conference, lost in the first round, and made the NCAA tournament anyway - and promptly justified the committee's faith by upsetting #5 TCU (27-5, by the way) in the first round.  That's conference respect.  Fast forward to 2013, when UVA can go 11-7 in the conference, beat eventual 5-seed Wisconsin on the road, and hit the bricks for the NIT.  That's, just, ouch.

A winning record used to be a punched ticket.  A losing record could still get you in.  Maryland went 7-9 in conference play in 2004 and wound up a four seed.  Back when ships were wood and men were iron, the conference schedule was a minefield and conference tournament seeding was completely wide open.

That sort of abruptly stopped in 2011; since that season, six teams with winning ACC records have been left out of the tourney.  '11 BC and VT; '12 Miami; '13 UVA; '14 Clemson; '15 Miami.  I don't mind saying that UVA's meteoric rise has coincided with an ACC that provided a path to do so.  Simply put, some games were gimmes if you were good enough, which would've been unthinkable in the past.

Now take a look at the state of the league this year.  Boston College is pathetic and will stay that way all year, but they're one of only three teams under a KenPom pythag rating of 0.7.  The last time that count was so small was 2010, when it was zero.  And keep in mind, the league didn't expand to 15 until 2014, meaning that for three years the league had fewer teams than it does now, and yet more bad teams.  In 2013, six teams (half the league!) were under 0.7, which surely didn't help UVA's cause any on Selection Sunday.  And four, including 9-9 FSU (ranked just below Wright State in the national ranks), were under 0.6.  Just last year, you still had seven teams (again, almost half the league) under that 0.7 mark.

In an environment like that, is it any wonder UVA kept blowing fools out?  Oh, sure, the occasional good team got drop-kicked into tomorrow as well, just ask Syracuse on senior night, but for the most part, UVA blew out the bad teams and played the good ones pretty close.

Now, suddenly, the ACC is back to being a deathtrap on any particular night.  UVA's record is frankly bizarre.  Four wins against teams with a combined 18-11 conference record - including three who sit at 5-2.  Three losses, against teams with a combined 7-13 conference record.  All road losses and home wins.  You can find examples of this all over the place, like NC State's blowout of Pitt despite the former being 1-6 and the latter being 5-2.

It's tough to have top-to-bottom excellence in a league with 15 teams, but the ACC is close - only two teams you could call gimme games, and I'd better be careful about saying that too strongly because UVA plays one of them on the road Tuesday.  Joey Brackets has eight ACC teams in the field and two more on the cusp.  ACC basketball is good again, in all the right ways.

Me, I love it.  It assuredly means more losses for UVA, but the wins are a bit more meaningful.  And the race will be the best it's been in a long time.  I'd sure like to see the Hoos tighten up on defense and stop throwing silly skip passes that don't have a snowball's chance of reaching their target, but I'm also planning on enjoying the tightened-up competition.  It's the ACC as God intended.

Monday, January 18, 2016

bronco's defense

Greetings and happy new year and happy unbirthday and all that.  It's been a while since I punched anything into this box, but I needed a bit of time to work on the analysis I have today.  If I'd known the basketball team was going to go to hell in a handbasket I might've saved the analysis for later.

What I've been wanting to do is quantify BYU's performance on offense and defense during the Bronco Mendenhall years there and compare that to UVA's performance at the same time.  National rankings are nice, but they don't really satisfy.  We need to have a way to take strength of schedule out of the equation.  So I got to thinking about how to do that.

A simple way for defense would be to take a particular game and see if BYU held that team to fewer yards than they typically muster, and on offense, the opposite.  If BYU were to hold a team to 200 passing yards, when that team averages 250, that's a good performance, right?  We could take each opponents averages and then how they performed against BYU, and produce an answer both on a single-game basis and all season as well.

The one problem with that is: maybe that team beat the shit out of BYU and spent the second half running the ball to bleed clock.  In other words, you still need to bring number of attempts into the equation.  This is why it's so maddening when announcers lazily focus on per-game numbers.  You didn't "hold" them to 200 yards if they passed the ball ten times.

So, to get a number that reflects the quality of a team's performance in a game, say for the run game, we take an opponent and divide (game yards / average yards) as well as (game attempts / average attempts).  For the former, a number below 1 is good, and for the latter, a number above 1 is good.  So we take (1 - first number) and (second number - 1) and add those two together, then multiply by 100 just for readability.  The result is that any number above 0 is an indicator of a good game - you held the opponent to a worse day on the ground than they normally have.  Any number below 0, and you let them have a better day than normal.  This is great because it works equally well for evaluating how you did against Kansas or Alabama.

I went back to 2008, which is only as far back as the eminently excellent cfbstats.com site goes.  (Because I used data from that site, I excluded I-AA teams; they don't appear and anyway it's not that useful of a data point.)  I wanted all of Bronco's tenure, but we can't have everything.  Eight years of data points is pretty good.  I also did the same for UVA.  A positive score in this metric is good, but we don't really know how good because I don't have all 128 teams' worth of data.  But we do have a comparison to UVA, which is a start.

An example of how this works: In 2015, both BYU and UVA played UCLA.  (We don't have to limit ourselves to common opponents, but it's just handy for an example.)  UCLA averaged 177.6 yards on 35.3 carries in the run game, 288.3 yards on 39.2 attempts in the passing game, and 465.9 yards on 74.5 plays overall.  All numbers are per game.

Against BYU they ran the ball 38 times for 296 yards.  About average on the carries, way too many yards - that's a terrible effort for BYU, and a score of -59.0.  Against UVA, 152 yards on 34 attempts for a moderately positive score of 10.7 for UVA's defense.

However, BYU held them to 106 yards on 23 attempts - both well below average - for a score of 21.9.  UVA scored -27.4 in the pass game by allowing 351 yards on 37 attempts.

In total, BYU allowed 402 yards.  Great, it's less than their 465.9 average - but on 61 plays vs. their 74.5 average.  That means a negative score of -4.4 overall.  For one game, that's close enough to zero to be a pretty neutral number.  UVA allowed 503 yards on 71 plays, for -12.7 overall.  Unsurprisingly, not only did UCLA beat both teams, but the UVA game was 34-16 and the BYU game was close at 24-23.

Got all that?  Let's present the numbers.  A couple notes: "Total" means the total for the season when you add everything up and treat the season as one game; "average" means each game averaged, so that each game weights the number the same.  Positive and negative games should be self-evident.

Run Defense


Pass defense



Total defense



Takeaways from this:

-- UVA's defense hasn't been bad, mostly.  Most years, UVA has positive scores.  More positive games than negative.

-- But it hasn't been exceptional.  UVA racks up 46 positive games and 42 negative ones, in terms of total defense.  The positive numbers are mostly small ones.

-- There's not a lot of separation between defensive coordinators.  Al Groh was in charge the first two years of this analysis.  Jim Reid was 2010-2012, and Jon Tenuta 2013-2015.  Reid had one really awful year in 2010 and Tenuta one really good one in 2014, and other than that the two DCs are hard to distinguish.  Tenuta was an upgrade over Reid, I think that's fair to conclude, but his 2015 pass defense stunk.  Not as bad as Reid's 2010 run defense.  We don't have a lot of reference points, but the ones we do have say 2010 was just unbelievable in its suckitude.

-- Even so, BYU has been much better.  2008 and 2014 are the only years where UVA had a better defense.  And even then, BYU's pass defense was better than ours in 2014, because it's not like BYU had a bad defense.  Consistently, they've been the better team on defense without a doubt.  They rack up 63 positive games against 35 negative ones - fewer negative games than UVA despite playing 10 more games that counted in this analysis.  (They went to a hell of a lot more bowl games and don't make as much of a habit of playing FCS teams.)

-- BYU tends to win its best defensive performances; UVA tends to waste them.  As you'll see below, the single best defensive game UVA has played in the past eight years was also notorious for some of Mike London's absolute stupidest decisions.

Ergo I think we can safely conclude what we already figured: Bronco Mendenhall is a definite upgrade.  We'll see about offense later - and it should be less time now that I have the technique refined a bit.

Just for fun (and some reference points), here are the five worst and best performances by each team:

Run defense (worst):

BYU:

-71.1 (2011 vs. Utah - L, 54-10)
-67.4 (2011 vs. Idaho - W, 42-7)**
-59.0 (2015 vs. UCLA - L, 24-23)
-58.5 (2009 vs. Florida State - L, 54-28)
-45.7 (2008 vs. San Diego State - W, 41-12)

UVA:

-71.0 (2010 vs. Eastern Michigan - W, 48-21)
-68.1 (2010 vs. Duke - L, 55-48)
-67.7 (2011 vs. Florida State - W, 14-13)
-61.5 (2012 vs. Georgia Tech - L, 56-20)
-57.6 (2015 vs. Louisville - L, 38-31)

Pass defense (worst):

BYU:

-71.6 (2014 vs. Utah State - L, 35-20)
-59.3 (2010 vs. Utah State - L, 31-16)
-57.3 (2015 vs. Missouri - L, 20-16)
-49.9 (2014 vs. Boise State - L, 55-30)
-37.0 (2013 vs. Houston - W, 47-46)

UVA:

-58.1 (2010 vs. North Carolina - L, 44-10)
-41.0 (2010 vs. Maryland - L, 42-23)
-36.4 (2011 vs. Miami - W, 28-21)
-29.5 (2008 vs. Connecticut - L, 45-10)
-29.0 (2013 vs. Georgia Tech - L, 35-25)

Total defense (worst):

BYU:

-43.4 (2011 vs. Texas - L, 17-16)
-25.6 (2008 vs. Washington - W, 28-27)
-25.2 (2015 vs. Missouri - L, 20-16)
-24.5 (2014 vs. Boise State - L, 55-30)
-23.7 (2015 vs. East Carolina - W, 45-38)

UVA:

-48.0 (2012 vs. Georgia Tech - L, 56-20)
-42.2 (2008 vs. Connecticut - L, 45-10)
-35.7 (2010 vs. North Carolina - L, 44-10)
-31.4 (2013 vs. Georgia Tech - L, 35-25)
-29.2 (2011 vs. Auburn - L, 43-24)

Run defense (best):

BYU:

93.4 (2012 vs. Washington State - W, 30-6)
59.0 (2010 vs. UNLV - W, 55-7)
57.5 (2012 vs. Utah - L, 24-21)
53.6 (2012 vs. New Mexico State - W, 50-14)
52.1 (2013 vs. Houston - W, 47-46)

UVA:

94.3 (2013 vs. Pittsburgh - L, 14-3)
89.5 (2014 vs. Kent State - W, 45-13)
75.7 (2012 vs. Maryland - L, 27-20)
67.4 (2008 vs. Clemson - L, 13-3)
59.2 (2011 vs. Duke - W, 31-21)

Pass defense (best):

BYU:

86.9 (2009 vs. Air Force - W, 38-21)
69.5 (2008 vs. Air Force - W, 38-24)
59.6 (2013 vs. Middle Tennessee - W, 37-10)
58.4 (2013 vs. Utah State - W, 31-14)
57.2 (2014 vs. Middle Tennessee - W, 27-7)

UVA:

57.2 (2012 vs. Virginia Tech - L, 17-14)
50.1 (2014 vs. Louisville - W, 23-21)
50.0 (2009 vs. North Carolina - W, 16-3)
45.6 (2011 vs. Georgia Tech - W, 24-21)
41.5 (2012 vs. NC State - W, 33-6)

Total defense (best):

BYU:

52.8 (2013 vs. Middle Tennessee - W, 37-10)
42.0 (2014 vs. Middle Tennessee - W, 27-7)
40.4 (2011 vs. New Mexico State - W, 42-7)
39.9 (2012 vs. Utah State - W, 6-3)
39.5 (2010 vs. UNLV - W, 55-7)

UVA:

50.4 (2012 vs. Virginia Tech - L, 17-14)***
48.1 (2008 vs. Clemson - L, 13-3)
45.6 (2013 vs. Pittsburgh - L, 14-3)
36.2 (2012 vs. NC State - W, 33-6)
35.5 (2013 vs. BYU - W, 19-16)

**Sometimes these scores ain't the best for predicting actual outcomes.  UVA played Idaho that same year and, you'll recall, escaped by the skin of their teeth, 21-20.  This despite having all positive numbers in this scoring metric for that game.  BYU did play excellent pass defense that game, and we haven't looked at the offense yet, but the real explanation, of course, is the special teams and turnovers - you might recall that game as being a particularly nasty example.

*** This was the game where Mike London wisely chose to use his two timeouts to freeze the wheelin' dealin, weed-stealin' Cody Journell instead of to save time for his offense, which was smart because it deflected the criticism from his idiotic decision to try and drive 90 yards for the game-winning score against a howling wind instead of playing for overtime where both teams would've had the same wind conditions.  I mean, it didn't work in that we lost the game, but nobody remembers Mike Rocco trying to throw a 5-yard out pattern across the field which of course got picked off because hurricane.  Brilliant decision-making from start to finish.  One imagines Bronco Mendenhall has more coaching acumen than to do any of that stuff.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

terra nova

In calling the Villanova game a potential rock fight, I didn't mean throwing pebbles into the ocean, but that's what you'd guess was happening the way the Hoos and Cats rolled the scoreboard up.  The main surprising thing isn't scoring 86 points.  The main surprising thing is doing it in only 60 possessions, the second-slowest game all year.

When you score 86 points against Morgan State, everyone eyes glaze over and they find a more interesting game to write about.  When you do it against Villanova, people notice - and now Tony Bennett is an offensive mastermind.  These are largely the same players that beat Rutgers 45-26, by the way.

It's all part of a program's metamorphosis into something special.  Mike Krzyzewski isn't known as a great offensive or defensive coach.  He's just known as a great coach.  Even before the Tennessee turnaround, Tony Bennett was getting accolades for his defense, and attention of all varieties for his desire to beat shot clocks into mewling submission.  That's great.  It's an identity, and one I truly enjoy.  I love that the arena gets its loudest for something as mundane as a shot clock violation.  I embrace the pace, and I know for sure Tony won't stop recruiting and selling his defense.

Still, it's one thing to get to the top.  UVA's climbed one Everest already by scrawling its name in the annals of the ACC championship.  Staying there is harder.  Old cliche, but so true.  You have to find and eliminate your weaknesses before the competition does.

That's why that Villanova game was a thing.  If the West Virginia game was proof of the season's chemistry experiment coming together, Villanova is proof the mortar has dried on the program foundations and the walls are ready to go up.  Take one of the really good defensive teams in the country and ruthlessly exploit their weaknesses instead of letting them jump on yours - that's how to keep on winning basketball games.  Not just this year, but in the long term.

************************************************

-- The flip side to the offensive volcano is that Nova scored 75 points on those 60 possessions.  That's a lot for a Tony Bennett defense - but then, in the play-by-play I counted 11 points off of quick-change turnovers that the defense had nothing to do with.  Without those..... well, that's still kind of a lot for a Tony Bennett defense, but well within acceptable parameters for a top-20 opponent.  The halfcourt, set-it-up defense looked as good as ever.

-- Nervous nellies will rightly point out that UVA isn't going to shoot 8-for-12 from three very often.  No, they won't, but they will if they create as many open looks as they did.  This wasn't luck, it was the product of really crisp and beautiful ball rotation that resulted in probably half those attempts coming completely uncontested.

-- One of them was kinda contested, but it was my favorite of the day.  Malcolm Brogdon walked upcourt, dribbled the shot clock down to five just because Nova was letting him, then took two steps at the basket, pulled up, and nailed it.  That was pages one through seventeen of the Kobe playbook.  Normally that kind of play why I think the NBA game is much less interesting than college, but we already know Brogdon's character and there isn't a me-me-me strand anywhere in his DNA.  But I've already gone on record saying he can and must be the alpha wolf this year, and a little selfishness on his part will go a long way for his teammates when they start finding themselves unguarded.  Jay Wright's a damn good coach and he was basically throwing up his hands in surrender with his postgame quotes, asking what do you do with a problem like Malcolm?

-- A particular pet peeve of mine is the contingent of Mike Tobey haters the fanbase has.  They have a certain expectation of what Tobey should be, which he isn't, and fail to appreciate what he actually is.  This is a problem nobody else on the team has.  Tobey's lone bucket of the Villanova game, though, came from being what they wish he was.  It won't shut them up, because it's all about consistency and why doesn't he tear someone's head off every possession, you see, but still.

(His first foul was the same.  I don't know how everyone in the arena sees a jump ball and the refs see a foul.  A shooting foul!  That was completely bizarre.)

-- The last time more than one UVA player scored 20 points in a game was three years ago against UWGB, when Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris had 20 apiece.  I bet it happens again this season.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

game preview: Villanova


Date/Time: Saturday, December 19; 12:00

TV: ESPN2

Record against the Wildcats: 4-2

Last meeting: Nova 73, UVA 63; 3/20/04, Philadelphia

Last game: UVA 70, WVU 54 (12/8); Nova 76, La Salle 47 (12/13)

KenPom:

Tempo:
UVA: 63.5 (#348)
Nova: 67.4 (#299)

Offense:
UVA: 115.9 (#7)
Nova: 113.2 (#17)

Defense:
UVA: 90.4 (#5)
Nova: 90.0 (#4)

Pythag:
UVA: .9455 (#1)
Nova: .9333 (#4)

Projected lineups:

Virginia:

PG: London Perrantes (10.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 5.1 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (16.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.7 apg)
SF: Darius Thompson (8.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.2 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (13.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.4 apg)
C: Jack Salt (3.1 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.0 apg)

Villanova:

PG: Ryan Arcidiacono (12.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 4.1 apg)
SG: Jalen Brunson (10.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 3.4 apg)
SF: Josh Hart (15.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.8 apg)
PF: Kris Jenkins (10.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.6 apg)
C: Daniel Ochefu (8.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.1 apg)

I've said this about a couple different schools, like Georgetown, but I don't know why UVA and Villanova don't play each other more.  The last time was over ten years ago and it was the NIT committee who arranged the matchup.  The time before that was also in the NIT.  The last time these two schools played each other on purpose was 1989, which seems silly.  They're a four-and-a-half hour bus ride apart and right next to each other alphabetically.  There's plenty of tradition on both sides.  It makes sense, dammit.

The Hoos jump straight from finals break to one of the most challenging games they'll have all year.  Villanova went 33-3 last season, lost three of their top players, and apparently didn't miss a beat.  Every single one of their games has been a blowout - although one of them wasn't exactly in their favor.  The flip side of that is that they haven't been tested, save for a trip to Hawaii to play a neutral-site game against Oklahoma, which got them killed.  They've played one road game - against St. Joseph's, which isn't so much a bus ride away as it is a carpool.  Nevertheless, they haven't allowed themselves to fall victim to any tripwires, as they've played a few teams that are at least capable.  They'll give UVA a handful in a game with an ACC-like feel to it.

-- UVA on offense

Villanova took Kris Jenkins out of the starting lineup after the Oklahoma disaster, and replaced him with the much smaller Phil Booth, but it's a good bet Jenkins will be back against UVA.  Nova would be laughably undermanned against Anthony Gill otherwise.  Jenkins is a little on the short side at 6'6", but he's beefy and against a lineup with Gill and a true center, he's Villanova's only hope.

Nova is, on the whole, an excellent defensive team.  Even the OU loss was more on the offense than the defense.  They stay in front of their man very well and have center Daniel Ochefu to wipe out a lot of mistakes.  He's a terrific shot-blocker, and lanky Mikal Bridges, playing forward off the bench, creates a lot of havoc on the defensive end too.  Villanova plays smart and fouls very little, and the result of all this is that teams typically have to shoot well from three to have a chance.

The hole, of course, is that they don't have much of a frontcourt outside of Ochefu.  Jenkins, really, plays a small forward's game.  Bridges and Darryl Reynolds play significant rotation minutes off the bench, but Reynolds leaves a hole on offense when he's in.  Nova has good backcourt size, but that doesn't help in scrambles underneath the basket, and second-chance points will be a concern for them all year - especially going up against a good offensive rebounding team on Saturday.  Ochefu does really excellent work on the boards, but he plays only half the time.

UVA probably won't get a lot of opportunities to drive at the rim, as the Wildcats do a good job at preventing it.  But they should be able to pound the ball inside, substituting to try and force mismatches with Gill and Isaiah Wilkins.  Mike Tobey probably won't light up the stat sheet, because Ochefu is a major handful - but simply by existing and occupying Ochefu, he'll force Nova to guard UVA's power forwards with someone who isn't well suited for it.

-- UVA on defense

This could be an exciting matchup for the pack-line.  Nova is a perplexing team on offense.  They finish really, really damn well at the rim.  Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart are both shooting 80% at the rim, and this is not on putbacks because this team, outside of Ochefu, simply doesn't do that.  When they get offensive rebounds - which isn't often - they reset, rather than going back up.  Not surprising for a team of mostly guards.  I digress.  This team does very well driving to the bucket.

Fortunately for their opponents - especially, say, an opponent whose defensive system is designed to slam the door on any attempts to drive the lane - Villanova is 1) in love with the three-ball and 2) not that good at it.  The reason they lost so badly to Oklahoma is they shot more threes than twos and hit on four of them - out of 32.

They were much better at it last year, and shooters gotta keep shooting, so eventually they might snap out of it.  Maybe on Saturday.  But so far this year, only Ryan Arcidiacono has been a threat as a distance shooter.  Jenkins, Bridges, and Jalen Brunson are all in the 20% range so far.  They've rolled their opponents anyway because they're so damn good inside the arc (against Georgia Tech, for example, 19-of-24 for two) and other than Ochefu, mostly automatic free-throw shooters, but they settle for threes a heck of a lot.  They could win a lot of games from the stripe, but they're near the bottom of D-I in free throw attempts.  They have this very peculiar statistical arrangement:

- #4 in the country in 2pt %
- #277 in the country in 3pt %
- #254 in the country in percentage of points coming from two
- #36 in the country in percentage of points coming from three

That is the fingerprint of a team that shoots way too damn many threes.  So pack-line 'em up.  This Villanova team is designed to be stopped by it.  When Nova throws it inside to Ochefu, they'll be dangerous, because dude's a hoss.  When they get past the gate sentries, they'll be dangerous, because they finish so well.  If they're content to settle for threes, and they have been all year, UVA will take it.  I suppose Nova could be an unstoppable force if they ever actually start hitting those threes, and we can't have nice things so they'll probably choose Saturday to start.  But UVA rebounds really well even against teams with actual power forwards, and it adds up to a very bad matchup for Nova's offense.

-- Outlook

This game stands a good chance of being a rock fight.  UVA's tempo is certainly up thanks to the shot clock - they're five possessions faster than they were last year and the highest they've been in the Tony Bennett era.  But still they're one of the slowest teams in the country.  Offensive average possession length is clearly faster.  Defensive possession length - hardly any change at all.  Villanova is not a run and gun team either; they're nearly as deliberate and force long possessions as well.  Add in that both teams play excellent defense and one team is a nightmarish matchup for the other's offense, and this game will likely struggle to hit the 70s, if not the 60s.

I said the other day that it looks to me like UVA's chemistry experiment is finally producing a reaction.  West Virginia was held to 54 points in 65 possessions, and just 18 in the second half.  If I'm right, UVA, playing at home and against an opponent that likes to do things that play into the hands of the pack-line, should win this one.  If I'm wrong, Villanova will find defensive breakdowns and derail the good vibes from the WVU win.  I might as well stop writing if I'm to call myself wrong a day after writing it.

Final score: UVA 63, Nova 54

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

shots in the arm

It's sort of a miniature holy grail of sportswriting to be able to call a turning point in a season right as it happens.  Sportswriters give it a shot all the time.  Cover a 162-game MLB season and you'll probably call eight different turning points as the season wears on.  It's easy to do after the fact, but not so easy in the moment; you'd have looked like a lunatic if you'd woken up on New Year's Day 2014 and made UVA a 1-seed in your bracketology.

I'm willing to give it a shot right now, though: beating West Virginia in Madison Square Garden sure as hell looks like a launchpad for the season.  To be honest, so far this hoops team has looked like they've had trouble getting out of third gear.  Putting a nasty ol' hurt on Lehigh doesn't do it for anyone.  Two struggles in two road games (and one loss) against decent but bubbly opponents doesn't scream Final Four - it says "seven seed."

MSG isn't a road venue, but it's a tournament-style venue.  And West Virginia is more than a tournament-style team.  They have really eye-popping efficiency numbers on both offense and defense.  There are things they do better than everyone in the country.  They play in what is probably the toughest top-to-bottom conference in the country (Boston College is doing the ACC no favors in this regard.)  At worst, beating them by 16 in a neutral venue is going to be worth one full seed in the selection committee room.

I think it did more than just move UVA from a 3 seed to a 2, though.  UVA took WVU's best shot, and it was a good one.  The Hoos were reeling, thanks to the Mountaineers' pressure, unable to pass the ball or rebound on defense - two of the most fundamentally simple things in basketball.  Then suddenly they punched back.

Tony told reporters that his halftime message wasn't elaborate: either you'll respond, or you won't.  Is that trust or what?  Up to you, guys.  Whatever you want to do.  Before halftime, it was a legitimate question to wonder if UVA's UVA-ness was taking a vacation this year.  After halftime, the mojo returned from the beach and went back to work, and like most teams before them, WVU found the bucket a mile away and ten inches wide.

******************************************************

UVA doesn't just have a football coach, it now has a whole staff.  Most of that staff is still in Provo, but Bronco Mendenhall wisely brought on (or kept) a few East Coast connections.  Marques Hagans (WRs) is the lone holdover.  Shaun Nua (DL) actually comes from both worlds, having worked with Bronco at BYU in the past but coming more directly from Annapolis where he was on Ken Niumatalolo's staff.  And best of all, UVA snapped up Ruffin McNeill, idiotically fired from East Carolina where his 5-7 record this year was used by their AD (which is no longer Terry Holland, in case you were wondering) as an excuse to win a political power struggle.

McNeill isn't likely to stay long.  Two, three years is the most likely cap.  Sooner or later, some AAC or CUSA team will find itself looking for a head coach.  McNeill will be on short lists maybe even as soon as next year; he was absolutely a success at ECU and other southeastern schools would be stupid to keep him off their short lists.  Western Kentucky isn't going to hang on to Jeff Brohm forever, FAU hasn't gained much traction, Charlotte just went 0-12....McNeill is going to look awfully good to some AD somewhere.  He's 57, so the window is just beginning to close, but it's best to assume he's a short-term staffer.

Nevertheless, ECU's loss is UVA's gain.  McNeill is said to be one of the most top-notch people in the industry, and, y'know, just look what he did at ECU.  Four bowl seasons out of six, and a ten-win season.  He can do some of his most important work right this week while the rest of the staff is preparing for the Las Vegas Bowl.  He and Hagans can give the BYU boys the East Coast high school grand tour.  And whatever he did to beat VT twice, maybe he can transfer some of that mojo too.

Speaking of which.  I sort of hate to begin comparing Mendenhall to Justin Fuente and the Blacksburg crew, but it's inevitable - hired in the same year, the competition and measuring-up is impossible to avoid.  Fuente retained a lot of Frank Beamer's staff and filled out the rest with Memphis coaches.  Both schools are taking a prudent approach.  UVA effected a near-complete overhaul, while VT held on to successful coaches (ol' Bud, Torrian Gray) and jettisoned ineffective ones - that is, most of the offensive side of the ball (li'l Shaney in particular), keeping only Zohn Burden, who produced some pretty good WRs this year.  Fuente brings a badly needed fresh start on offense for VT; Mendenhall brings an even more badly-needed discipline hand to Charlottesville and a large cadre of unified, trusted staff to reinforce the message.

From here in December, though, not even a month from the introductions, I'm willing to predict Bronco outlasts Fuente.  It's largely a question of expectations.  VT fans were mad because Beamer kept going to crappy bowls and almost losing to UVA.  If both programs go 8-5 for the next three years, just take a guess which fanbase will be happier about that.  Fuente needs to put VT in the ACC CG repeatedly or it won't be enough - and if he does produce multiple ten-plus win seasons, rumors will swirl once jobs like Arkansas or Texas A&M open up.  And he'd better not lose to UVA more than once in the next four years.  I think VT fans could handle a loss (as long as it's not in 2016) but if he allows Bronco to put UVA on equal footing with the Hokies in the state, it won't sit well.

But forget the next couple years, just the next couple months will be interesting to watch.  UVA football offseasons are fun again.  I hardly paid attention to recruiting efforts this year, for example - why bother, when there's so little guarantee that a commitment in May will sign in February?  As usual, finals break sucks for sports fans, but Saturday marks the end of boring times - UVA fans can watch one of the marquee basketball games of the year and then root for their coaching staff in a bowl game (which is liable to be a three-hour advertisement for UVA football) and then let the fun begin Sunday when Bronco and co. become full-time Hoos.

Monday, December 7, 2015

bronc and roll

UVA fans watch the Bronco Mendenhall press conference

It's been a little over six years and seven months since Craig Littlepage dropped a bomb by hiring someone other than Rick Barnes or Tubby Smith to coach the basketball team.  That was surprising, and I reacted by going "who the hell is that?" and being incredibly put out for about 10 seconds - the amount of time it took me to look up where he was coming from.  Oh.  Washington State.  I know two things about them.  They've been in the Sweet 16 lately, and they have the basketball tradition of a potato.  They're really good, it's really hard for them to be good, this might work.

But an ACC team trying to find a basketball coach can pick from a large set of possibilities, including other Power 5 conferences and the NBA, so dropping a surprise is not too tough.  An ACC team trying to find a football coach has a much smaller group of candidates.  Football is a smaller pool of teams and the ACC doesn't rank so high on the pecking order.  The media is usually pretty good at identifying the list of available coaches, and surprises are usually unpleasant.  Like when South Carolina turns to Will Muschamp and says, gee, you did such a bang-up job coaching in the SEC East with more resources than any other school in the division, why not take a crack at it with the degree of difficulty cranked way up?  Surprises are bad.

Except, apparently, when pulled off by Craig Littlepage and whatever search firm dug this up.  Littlepage saved me 10 seconds this time around - I knew exactly where Bronco Mendenhall coached.  I got to skip the "who?" stage and go right to "this might work."  The surprise lingered all weekend and into Monday and probably for quite a while.

The pessimistic view on UVA's head-coach gig has been that it's not very attractive because losing record.  I've always called that nonsense.  There's too much going for it for it not to be attractive, and coaches always think they can turn it around - I sure wouldn't want one who didn't.  Mendenhall just vindicated the hell out of that position and took it just one step further: UVA's record was a reason he came.  He had a great thing going at BYU, and there wouldn't have been any point to leaving it for a light maintenance job.  It's clear from everything that's come out since Friday - up to and including Monday's press conference - that he's looking forward to seeing his approach can make a difference.  A really big difference.

Mendenhall said all the right things at the presser about how UVA is a special place with high standards, which is what coaches always say when they're being introduced.  A certain part of fanhood of losing teams involves wanting to be told that things will be all better soon, and the place for that is the introductory press conference, but that's not why Mendenhall blew that press conference away.  He blew it away because he was very blunt and very uncompromising on certain things.  Yes, it would have been a deal-breaker to not be able to coach BYU's bowl game.  No, I'm not gonna sleep at the office.  Yes, I'm going to pay attention to things other than my job, starting with my family.  These are things usually used to demonstrate your all-in-by-golly commitment to your new job, and Mendenhall flat-out told everyone that's not what his commitment entailed.  And it made everything else ring loud, clear, and true.  Because of that, it's easy to believe that the buzzwords like accountability and standards aren't just buzzwords.

Mendenhall, in short, is Mike London with a plan.  It's funny - going back, the things London talked about in his press conference, he did just that.  He talked about being energetic, recruiting the 757, the character he wanted his players to exhibit.  The word "discipline" was not spoken once.  He never talked about the systems he planned on installing, other than a passing mention of a 4-3 defense.  He was asked about his offensive philosophy and gave a generic answer about scoring a lot, and then said, "I think there are several positions that are key" and then proceeded to list all the offensive positions on the field except offensive line.

Eerie, then, how it turned out.  Ironically, that too is reason for optimism.  If London's presser turned out so prophetic, why shouldn't Mendenhall's?  There was a lot of overlap.  Both coaches said, more or less exactly, "you're not just getting me, you're getting my family."  Both talked about academics and character and UVA being the kind of place where it matters, and that being why they wanted to be here.  The difference is that London stopped there.  Mendenhall laid out a plan, a system, and the results it's achieved so far.

And those results are impressive.  BYU has an impressive football history, which belies how tough it is to win there.  You have to convince players to go to a place with behavior restrictions topped only by military academies.  Many of them leave for two years and don't do anything more physically strenuous than ride a bike.  And Mendenhall further limited himself by being Tony Bennett-esque in demanding his recruits fit the requirements, even believing that they should have to sell themselves to him as much as the other way around.  On the one hand, right now, I could probably do a better job than Mendenhall of knowing, say, which are the pipeline schools in Hampton Roads.  (Not for long, but, y'know, this minute at least.)  On the other hand, UVA is supposed to be this hard place to recruit to, and Mendenhall is coming from one of the few places where it's tougher.

It's the splash of the year, at just the right time.  The ACC Coastal won the coaching carousel this year.  The SEC hired two coordinators with no head coaching experience and one retread in all the worst senses of the word.  Maryland and Rutgers did that too and those were the two better hires in the Big Ten, because Illinois hired a guy who was fired from Western Michigan.  USC went full inbred, making it 2-for-2 in laughable hires by schools initialized USC.  VT, on the other hand, made the best Conventional Hire in the country, and Miami took the best coach actually known to be available.  Duke still has the guy that made Duke into a good football team.  Pitt went the coordinator route last year but at least it was with the reigning Broyles winner.  None of these are the guy who actually went undefeated in conference play, which would be Larry Fedora.  UVA needed to find some way to keep up.  Consider it done and then some.  Bronco Mendenhall is both a damn good coach and the right coach.  UVA needed both.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

not with a bang

Frank Beamer played it how Frank Beamer always plays it.  One of his players hit a referee - short of committing an actual prosecutable crime, basically the single most felonious thing you can do on a football field - and that player was suspended for a half.  Because it was "unintentional."  This is sort of like when your kicker breaks into someone's house to steal back his weed and that becomes "trespassing."

And Mike London played it how Mike London always plays it.  Two timeouts burned during his final game because his team couldn't figure out how to substitute.  Three false start penalties and one dingus lined up on offense straddling the neutral zone, which latter penalty you could see coming a mile away.  And a quarterback who's been so well developed and coached that his first choice in the two-minute drill (one minute, actually) is to chuck the ball deep down the middle to a quadruple-covered tight end.  Great play design, incidentally.

Thus did the head coaching careers of two coaches end - the only way either coach knew how.  Mike London's last game could only have been more of a microcosm of his career if he had taken his last timeout to ice Joey Slye on his game-winning kick.  That would've been absolutely precious.  Otherwise it checks all the boxes.  Red zone ineptitude, poor discipline, getting outcoached at halftime, headscratchingly bad QB decisions, and just because Steve Fairchild absolutely had to get in on the be-who-you-are action, lots of third-and-long screen passes.  One of them finally worked, and I imagine that was the instant Fairchild at long last felt at peace with his not-too-illustrious tenure in Charlottesville.

Any further flowery eulogizing of the Mike London era would be literary onanism.  It's not an era much worth remembering.  It wasn't just losing football, it was bad football.  It was aimless, unplanned, unencumbered by identity.  Everything good that can be said about it, is said about the off-field aspects of running a program.  This is like house-hunting and being shown a dilapidated terrible old house with a palatial, immaculate basement.  The other way round isn't desirable either, and at least you've got a nice foundation, and foundation matters, but the world remembers the face you show it.

******************************************************

I'm not going to exhaustively cover the coaching search, but how about a quick tiny blurb on some of the possible candidates?  First impressions, call them, and almost nothing at all to do with probability of landing them.

Mike Bloomgren: One of several under-experienced offensive coordinators on the list, and the least connected in this area of the country.

Jeff Brohm: Impressive offense at WKU, which won their bowl game last year by coming back from a 49-14 deficit.  Experience playing and teaching quarterback a plus.  Would need a very strong DC hire.  Risk to jump ship to Louisville should anything happen to Bobby Petrino, but one of the top fallback options.

Mack Brown: The fanbase is harshly divided on whether this would be a good idea or not; count me in the Yes camp.  A Hall of Fame coach with a national championship ring and extensive coaching tree is not a guy you turn your nose up at.  His age isn't a major issue; if successful here, he could coach 6-8 years and put the program on the right track.  This is an attractive enough job to draw Brown's eye as well as other high-profile names like Mark Richt and Dan Mullen - imagine what it could do with a winning record and full stadium?  Brown would likely provide that.

Troy Calhoun: In the past he's had the reputation of being tough to pry out of the AFA.  His record at a very tough place to win is impressive, as is the accountability he demands - a very welcome departure from London for sure.  And he's got a very good mind for offense.  On the down side, there are very real reasons to be wary of Ken Niumatalolo, and Calhoun has had a tough time beating him.  Calhoun's offense, while more multi-dimensional than Navy's, only relies slightly less exclusively on the run.

Al Golden: Similar to London in that his Miami teams lacked identity.  Far more talented of a coach, obviously.  High-floor, low-ceiling hire.

Pep Hamilton: Star fell a bit after being fired as Colts OC, but was a hot wish-list name for a lot of vacancies for a while.  Seems to prefer the NFL, however, and has never been a head coach.

Dan Mullen: Was winning at Mississippi State before Dak Prescott, so concerns that he's a one-trick pony are unfounded.  Mullen was the favorite choice of the knowledgeable wing of the Michigan fanbase before it was clear Jim Harbaugh was a real thing, and a concerted effort could reel him in.  The top home-run choice now that Mark Richt is more or less off the board.

Ken Niumatalolo: Has done well at Navy, but Paul Johnson is already in the division; trying to beat the master with the student isn't a very likely proposition.  Army has been trying to beat Navy at their own game for a while now and it's not working.

Matt Rhule: Interesting career path; while at Temple, he switched from being DL coach to QB coach, then became OC a year later.  He's certainly taken a difficult situation to tremendous heights this year, but I think, more than any other current HC we could look at (even Brohm), we'd be taking a risk that he's not a flash in the pan.  Temple's defense, not their offense, is leading them to the top.

Mark Richt: The very best choice for the job, tempered only by the fact that he's pretty much turned it down.

Lincoln Riley: Has exactly one year of experience at a Power 5 school; Oklahoma's offense has improved between last year and this year, but it's too soon to tell how much of that is Riley's doing.  And ECU's offense was decent but far from explosive during his time there.  Too thin of a resume to be anything but a colossal leap of faith.

Mike Sanford: See Riley, Lincoln.

Greg Schiano: Reputation as an asshole will precede him wherever he goes.  A Sports Illustrated article painted the picture of a reformed coach hoping for a second chance, and he'll need a fresh start somewhere in order to lose said reputation.  In Schiano you'd certainly see the discipline lacking under London; if the reform job works, Schiano has potential to be the architect of a major turnaround, but you're taking a risk that leopards do change spots.

Matt Wells: Solid record at Utah State for two years - not so much this year.  Raises questions about whether he's been riding coattails.  Also has zilch connections on the East Coast.

Monday, November 30, 2015

game preview: Ohio State


Date/Time: Tuesday, December 1; 7:30

TV: ESPN

Record against the Buckeyes: 1-3

Last meeting: UVA 89, OSU 73; 1/25/81, Charlottesville

Last game: UVA 80, Leh. 54 (11/25); Mem. 81, OSU 76 (11/27)

KenPom:

Tempo:
UVA: 64.4 (#347)
OSU: 68.3 (#283)

Offense:
UVA: 115.2 (#5)
OSU: 106.6 (#80)

Defense:
UVA: 92.0 (#10)
OSU: 98.9 (#92)

Pythag:
UVA: .9299 (#3)
OSU: .7030 (#73)

Projected lineups:

Virginia:

PG: London Perrantes (10.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 5.3 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (16.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.2 apg)
SF: Marial Shayok (7.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.8 apg)
PF: Anthony Gill (12.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 0.3 apg)
C: Jack Salt (3.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 0.0 apg)

Ohio State:

PG: JaQuan Lyle (11.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.2 apg)
SG: Jae'Sean Tate (10.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.4 apg)
SF: Keita Bates-Diop (12.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.6 apg)
PF: Marc Loving (16.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.2 apg)
C: Daniel Giddens (6.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 0.4 apg)

Yes, yes, yes, I'll get to the elephant in the room.  How could I not?  But that can percolate a little, and there's a big basketball game tomorrow, so this post has a closer expiration date.

The basketball powers that be seem to enjoy having UVA play teams I hate for non-UVA reasons, so here we go into Columbus for our portion of the ACC-B1G Challenge.  Ohio State has had a very nice last decade or so in basketball, with two Final Fours and numerous Sweet Sixteen appearances, but their seven-year tournament streak is already in jeopardy, five games into the season.  Losses to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech do not bolster a tournament resume.

Still, though UVA still shows up well in the early-season KenPom rankings, that's mostly from crushing lousy teams and some preseason carryover.  UVA will have to go back on the road into a difficult environment after playing the last four games in some very friendly confines (the arena in Charleston was decidedly pro-UVA throughout the tournament.)  Aaron Craft and Jared Sullinger aren't walking through that door for OSU, but they're not all of a sudden a MEAC team.

-- UVA on offense

The 30-second shot clock has affected the UVA offense in one appreciable way: it's rare now to see London Perrantes walking the ball up the court like he's on a Sunday stroll to nowhere in particular.  UVA now pushes the ball up past halfcourt usually within a couple seconds and then stalls the game to a pokey crawl.  They still rank outside the top 300 in offensive possession length (the shorter, the "better".)

Perrantes has so far been a bit more aggressive in looking for his shot, both at the rim and the arc - not like he considers himself the first option or anything, but he's been getting after it a bit more.  That'll be much harder against OSU, because point guard JaQuan Lyle is not only 6'5", but comes in with a five-star pedigree, too.  Lyle has been anything but aggressive on defense, with only two steals on the season, but he's an obstacle all the same.

OSU is a team with good playable size, and it's shown so far in their interior defense; they've been difficult to score on down low and are one of the top shot-blocking teams in the country in the early going.  Center Daniel Giddens has 16 blocks already - more swats than he has field goals - which is a primary reason for his entry into the starting lineup over Trevor Thompson.  Thompson is no slouch himself - you'll recognize the name, he was last seen as a 210-pound beanpole trying to form some semblance of a backcourt with Joey van Zegeren in Blacksburg.  He transferred to OSU and has re-emerged 40 pounds heavier and a viable rotation member, though he's actually only played about a quarter of the available minutes.

UVA's offense was simply abusive against the last four cream puffs, with the result that almost everyone is shooting over .500 from two and a lot of guys are over .400 from three.  During those four games, UVA scored one-and-one-third points per possession, and even in the loss to GW they scored 68 in 68 possessions.  OSU is certain to slow that pace somewhat, and UVA needs to drop a few more threes in than they did against GW (the Hoos started that game 2-for-14 and found themselves in a hole partly because of it) to keep the large and shotblocky OSU defenders from clogging up the lane.

-- UVA on defense

It's early, so these trends will get tamped down a bit - but OSU's offense is similar to its defense.  Their size means they don't get their shots blocked much, and they shoot well inside.  (The caveat to both this and their defense is that cream puffs, even ones you lose to, are generally undersized.)  OSU also has a few guys who've started the season off hot from behind the arc.

Marc Loving is a tough player to guard, shooting well from both two and three.  The same goes for Keita Bates-Diop, who's only 5-for-18 from three so far, which is a sample size problem more than anything as he shot just fine last year and is OSU's top free-throw shooter too.  Austin Grandstaff - a one-time UVA target on the recruiting circuit - comes off the bench for the specific purpose of three-point shooting and is 8-for-19.

There are a couple glaring red spots, though.  OSU turns the ball over too much, and these are generally unforced errors.  A couple bench players - most prominently Trevor Thompson and backup SG A.J. Harris - are particular culprits.  Worse yet is their free-throw shooting, which doomed them against UTA and wasn't any help in their other losses.  Loving and Bates-Diop - no problem.  Everyone else....whoof.  Giddens and JaeSean Tate are brick factories; both are in the .300s.  JaQuan Lyle has been rotten too.  Those three have combined to shoot more than half of OSU's free throws.

-- Outlook

OSU has good size, and their top two scorers are matchup problems who can score from a lot of different places, inside and outside the arc.  And Daniel Giddens is a legitimately tough center, while JaQuan Lyle has looked so far like a pretty good facilitator of the offense.

That said, OSU has yet to play against anything resembling a decent big man.  They've all been either stiffs or nonexistent.  The one exception is Memphis's Shaq Goodwin, who went completely off on the OSU defense with 23 points on 7-for-9 shooting and nine points from the stripe.  This is a losable game if the defense is still a little too loose for Tony's liking, but OSU's flaws should hold them back enough, and the UVA offense has been clicking - even coming down off the mountain would still put them high above the trees.

Final score: UVA 74, OSU 68

Friday, November 27, 2015

game preview: Virginia Tech


Date/Time: Saturday, November 28; 12:00

TV: ESPNUVA

Record against the Hokies: 37-54-5

Last meeting: VT 24, UVA 20; 11/28/14, Blacksburg

Last weekend: UVA 42, Duke 34; UNC 30, VT 27

Line: VT by 3.5

As you might have guessed by the utter lack of football content lately, it's been hard to form any emotions or strong opinions about football these days.  Impressively, the players keep plugging.  There's nothing tangible at stake and hasn't been for a while, but they're getting after it.  That whole losing-to-Duke thing was getting really old, so it's nice at least to have that on the resume this year.

It's rivalry week though.  I don't care what anyone says, this is the right week to play this game.  Are the students gone?  Yeah, but most of them can make a day trip anyway.  I made it back from 750 miles away, so the Fairfax mafia can too.  Are people busy with friends and family?  Yeah, but surely a reasonably successful program can scrape up enough fans to fill a stadium.  All we need to do is find a reasonably successful program.

This is the right time for this game because no matter what happens in the season, you still have one last thing to look forward to.  Play this game in October and then what?  Hit the seven-loss mark and look forward to that epic end-of-season clash with Pittsburgh?  No offense to Pitt, but I'm gonna say nah.  Rivalry games are storyline games.

And this one has more than enough to go around.  Frank Beamer is definitely coaching his last ACC game and maybe (if things go just right) his last game ever.  Mike London is almost definitely coaching his last at UVA as well.  These two schools meet for a basketball game on January 4 and both may well have introduced new football coaches by then.  Change is in the air.  Both teams are trying to extend their coach's career - one by going bowling and one by hoping they can stave off a firing.

This latter doesn't seem likely, by the way, even with a win.  Just as the economics made it difficult to fire London last year, they make it even harder to keep him this year.  UVA will have to swallow about a $3.5 million pill, but refusing to do would be the very definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Only two coaches are owed any money after this season: London and Jon Tenuta.  No college football coach ever coaches the last year of his contract - the optics of doing so are prohibitive - so keeping London means extending him, and extending him means doing so for like four years.  Or, I suppose, he could coach the last year of his contract, and UVA can figure out how to convince a whole staff worth of assistant coaches to coach on a one-year contract.  There are those who'll say that the huge number of vacancies this year means that the competition for the right coach is bloody and fierce, and they're not wrong, but the size of the coaching carousel also means lots and lots and lots of assistant-coach vacancies.  Any assistant who chooses a one-year contract working for an obvious lame duck over a longer-term contract on a new staff is too stupid to be placed in charge of mentoring young adults.

For this weekend, that means I can stand on very solid ground in predicting that London's days as UVA's head coach are numbered in the single digits.  I'm not going to spend my time chasing rumors about his replacement - and depending on how various teams' postseasons go, that could take a while - but the spectrum of readings about London's impending release are advanced enough to be somewhere between rumor and confirmed fact.  The program and the rivalry will shortly enter a new era.  Given how both have proceeded recently, it's a welcome sight.

-- UVA run offense vs. VT run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 153 carries, 638 yards, 4.2 ypc, 4 TDs
Albert Reid: 57 carries, 257 yards, 4.5 ypc, 2 TDs

UVA offense:
134.09 yards/game, 3.84 yards/attempt
101st of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

VT defense:
172.55 yards/game, 4.36 yards/attempt
72nd of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

So last week, ACC ref Ron Cherry called an offside penalty on Tech DE Dadi Nicolas, and Nicolas did what anyone would do in that situation: hit Cherry in the arm.  And by "anyone" I really mean no one at all because hitting a referee is as big a taboo as there is in all of sports.  Nicolas wasn't just randomly flailing his arms and didn't realize who was behind him; he actually walked up behind Cherry and angrily whacked him in the outstretched arm (Cherry was signaling "on the defense").

Because Frank Beamer is either an idiot, or thinks we're all idiots, he claimed it was unintentional and suspended Nicolas for 30 minutes.  And because the ACC is full of gutless wonders, they let the suspension stand instead of immediately stepping in and telling Beamer "nuh-uh."  So VT will be missing one of their better run-stoppers for a half - but not the important half.  Great precedent.  Hit a referee, be suspended for basically no time at all.

UVA's running game has settled into an area a notch or two above what it was to start the season.  Back then it was minimally functional - now it's sort of just plain functional.  It strikes fear in the heart of nobody, but at least it moves the ball.  But fortunately, Tech's defense is a tiny shadow of its past self.  The VT D-line has held up well.  Nicolas was much more terrifying last year, but he and Ken Ekanem do a more than passable job of keeping the edges clean.  VT is undersized at tackle, but it doesn't matter too much; Luther Maddy, Corey Marshall, and Woody Baron make for a pretty good rotation in the middle.

The difference is at linebacker, where VT is accustomed to getting good if not great play, and they're not getting it this year.  Hokie fans complain incessantly about Andrew Motuapuaka's play in the middle.  Deon Clarke has done alright, but it's clear the linebacking isn't up to the usual standards.

Still, VT will have the advantage in the trenches and a fresh Nicolas to start the second half, so running the ball will be difficult.  VT can only be said to have truly shut down one team this year (the totally impotent Boston College offense) so there'll be yardage at the end of the day.  It's not likely to move the needle much, though.

-- UVA pass offense vs. VT pass defense

Quarterback:
Matt Johns: 229/365, 62.7%; 2,639 yards, 19 TDs, 15 INTs; 7.23 ypa, 132.4 rating

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 68 rec., 671 yards, 4 TDs
Canaan Severin: 51 rec., 713 yards, 7 TDs
T.J. Thorpe: 20 rec., 295 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
244.4 yards/game, 7.2 yards/attempt
68th of 128 (national), 9th of 14 (ACC)

VT defense:
174.0 yards/game, 7.1 yards/attempt
67th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

The yards-per-attempt numbers that I like so much don't tell the story here.  VT is missing Kendall Fuller, who's been out since September.  Without him, opponents have generally avoided Brandon Facyson (who has 10 PBUs and 26 tackles) and gone after Chuck Clark instead.  Clark's not the worst, but he leads the team in tackles, which is partly a function of run support and partly a function of getting thrown at.  A lot.

The real story, though, is still in the numbers.  Tech has only allowed three opponents to complete more than 50% of their passes.  Good for them.  When opponents do complete passes, they average over 14.7 yards per completion.  Bad for them.  To put that in perspective, UNC is the fourth-best passing offense in the country and the second-best non-wacky passing offense in the country (Army and Air Force run goofball offenses where passing is used as a trick play) and they average about 14.5 yards per completion.

In other words, welcome to the wild funland of inconsistent safety play, where VT trusts their free safeties so much they only ever start strong safeties.  (Or rovers, in VT terminology.)  Adonis Alexander is the team leader in picks and he lost his starting job a few weeks ago because he's a wide receiver adventure waiting to happen.

Because of UVA's use-the-pass-game-as-the-run-game approach to offense, that 14.7 is coming down, and Matt Johns probably will complete more than 50% of his passes.  Bypassing the defensive line in this way is probably smart.  Facyson will probably draw Canaan Severin, so with adventureland safety play and the potential for some big gains, T.J. Thorpe could be the game's X-factor.

-- VT run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Travon McMillian: 166 carries, 880 yards, 5.3 ypc, 5 TDs
Brenden Motley: 88 carries, 224 yards, 2.5 ypc, 3 TDs

VT offense:
159.09 yards/game, 3.71 yards/attempt
109th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
164.91 yards/game, 4.68 yards/attempt
96th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

The numbers are a little misleading here, too.  VT looks like one of the worst run offenses in the country at first glance.  When they're handing off to Travon McMillian, though, they get a lot more effective all of a sudden.  McMillian started the season at the end of the depth chart, but by the beginning of November he'd shunted aside both Trey Edmunds and J.C. Coleman and has become the official workhorse back.  With fullback Sam Rogers getting a steady diet of change-of-pace carries, Edmunds and Coleman have all but disappeared.

The stats are also skewed by Brenden Motley, a mobile-ish quarterback who doesn't actually run all that well.  Motley was standing in for Michael Brewer, who returned to the lineup four games ago from a broken collarbone and who never runs anywhere if he can help it.

Neither UVA's D-line nor VT's O-line has been anything like you'd call impressive this year; the thing that matters here is McMillian vs. the linebackers.  McMillian has been very good.  Micah Kiser's 107 tackles say he probably knows what he's doing too.  If the linebackers are on point, McMillian will be bottled up, but that's something most teams have had trouble doing consistently.

-- VT pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Quarterback:
Michael Brewer: 88/150, 58.7%; 1,122 yards, 10 TDs, 5 INTs; 7.48 ypa, 136.8 rating

Top receivers:
Isaiah Ford: 57 rec., 816 yards, 9 TDs
Cam Phillips: 43 rec., 536 yards, 2 TDs
Bucky Hodges: 33 rec., 458 yards, 6 TD

VT offense:
214.1 yards/game, 7.2 yards/attempt
66th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
256.4 yards/games, 8.2 yards/attempt
110th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

Some teams spread the ball around, getting passes to a lot of different receivers.  Then there's Virginia Tech.  The backs are a small, barely significant part of the passing game.  Backup tight end Ryan Malleck gets a token catch or so each game.  Three guys have 72% of VT's completions.

Those would be receivers Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips, and tight end Bucky Hodges.  To be sure, these are three legitimate players.  Particularly Ford, the ACC's receiving yards leader.  Hodges is a difficult mismatch; he's huge, standing 6'7", 241, and your prototypical tough cover as a tight end that nickel corners can barely tackle let alone reach balls thrown high in the air, and who linebackers have a tough time chasing down.

At quarterback, Brewer is....fine.  He doesn't light up the stadium, but he doesn't lose the game by himself, either.  He lets his three main receivers do most of the work and then finds the one that's most open.  If they're open, he can usually find them; if not, he can't throw them open.  He won't make any plays with his feet, either; Brewer is one of the least mobile quarterbacks around.  VT doesn't protect him real well, so Tenuta should be able to pressure him.

-- Favorability ratings

Run offense: 4
Pass offense: 5
Run defense: 4
Pass defense: 4

Average: 4.25

-- Outlook

Stat sheets and past impressions, yes, all well and good; this one's still coming down to intangibles.  These teams are about evenly matched; the difference between them is basically one extra OOC challenge game.  Both have solid quarterbacks, large positional weaknesses that prevent them from contending for anything, and coaches on the way out.

So, cliche as it sounds, it comes down to things like turnovers, wanting it more, making a clutch play, all those things that announcers think every game is about.  VT carried Beamer off the field despite the loss last week; no doubt they'll be motivated to win the last one for him.  UVA, likewise.  VT is pretty good at coming up with wrinkles for the UVA game that surprise the Hoos; UVA, not so much likewise.

Still, UVA is at home, where it so happens they're 4-2, and 3-0 in ACC play.  Tech has a slight edge on paper and a big edge on the sidelines, but....if not now, when?  Mike London shrugged off one demon last week and beat David Cutcliffe.  Why not another one?  Let's go ahead and say the extra motivation is on the good guys' side for once.

Final score: UVA 24, VT 21

-- Rest of the ACC

Miami @ Pittsburgh - Fri. 12:00 - Nothing at stake here anymore except trying to look good for bowl suitors.

Georgia Tech vs. Georgia - 12:00 - 8-3 vs. 3-8 would seem like a pretty lopsided matchup, but GT did beat FSU at home.

Louisville @ Kentucky - 12:00 - UL tries to keep one SEC team out of bowl contention.

Clemson @ South Carolina - 12:00 - The third-best football team in the state of South Carolina stands between Clemson and an undefeated regular season.

Boston College @ Syracuse - 12:30 - Battle for Atlantic un-supremacy.

Duke @ Wake Forest - 12:30 - Wake me when it's over.

North Carolina @ NC State - 3:30 - UNC could set up an ACC CG between 8-0 teams.

Florida State @ Florida - 7:30 - FSU isn't going to the CFP, but they can throw a wrench in the works.